Mystery Shopper: Salesman exercises good judgment in selling fitness equipment

At the end of March, which is pretty early spring in New England, the thoughts of our mystery shopper, Jane, turned to shedding a few layers of both clothing and excess flesh. Toward that end, she decided to pay a visit to Precor Home Fitness in Newton, Mass.
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At the end of March, which is pretty early spring in New England, the thoughts of our mystery shopper, Jane, turned to shedding a few layers of both clothing and excess flesh. Toward that end, she decided to pay a visit to Precor Home Fitness in Newton, Mass.

As we always like to point out: Our goal with these Mystery Shoppers is not to pick on one person or one store -- or to praise one particular store or person -- but to point out what went right and what, if anything, went wrong and, hopefully, offer a learning experience to any and all retailers. Each and every shopping experience can be widely different, even at any one store or with any one person. Don't forget to visit our Training Center (www.snewsnet.com/salestools) to see our entire lineup of past Mystery Shoppers.

The store, which had opened just over three months prior to Jane's visit, was neatly tucked into a small plaza that also housed a spa/salon and a couple of other neighborhood businesses. It was about 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and the temperature had teasingly climbed to the mid-50s, prompting PHF's store manager to prop the front door open. An exercise bike placed outside next to the entryway beckoned passers-by.

When Jane ambled onto the sales floor, the manager, Jay, was on the phone -- obviously conducting some business and not just chit-chatting. He was the only employee in the store, but he gave a friendly wave of acknowledgement. As Jane waited for help, she proceeded to wander around and take in the surroundings. At that moment, she was the only customer on the floor, but a few others would meander in during the course of the visit (and, for the record, Jay was able to answer their questions without leaving Jane feeling ignored).

Initially, Jane wasn't sure what to expect but was pleasantly surprised by the store's neatness and set-up. A row of treadmills stretched along the left wall and a variety of exercise bikes extended across the back of the store, eventually giving way to a cashier/info station opposite the front door. A small rear alcove boasted shelves stocked with small weights, yoga mats and accessories. The right wall was reserved for a gleaming row of elliptical machines. A few large and seemingly elaborate home gym set-ups dominated the center of the floor. There seemed to be plenty of equipment options, as well as sufficient space between each piece to accommodate customer demos.

Jay soon walked over, introduced himself, and asked if she was looking for anything in particular. Jane told him that she was less than thrilled with the crowded, smelly and expensive after-work gym experience and would prefer to devise some sort of exercise routine at home. She was undecided about whether to opt for a treadmill or an elliptical and could certainly use some guidance.

He then proceeded to ask Jane a series of thorough "qualifying" questions, for example, what sort of athletic activities she enjoyed, how often she did them, and how intense of a workout she sought. Jay inquired if there were any space issues regarding the equipment's size and its potential location in the home, and if there were other household members who might also want to use the machine. In all, he did a good job of zeroing in on Jane's particular needs. In terms of budget, Jane volunteered that she didn't necessarily want the cheapest thing, but was not going to spend many multiple thousands, either. She was looking for something that was sturdy, comfortable, operated smoothly, and would not break the bank. It was up to him to help narrow the choices.

In addressing the treadmill vs. elliptical question, Jay remarked that it was really a matter of personal preference. "But overall," he said, "ellipticals will give you a better overall body workout than a treadmill, assuming that you're also using the arms of the elliptical. Also, you can do the same things outside -- walk, run or jog -- as inside on a treadmill, but you can't replicate an elliptical workout outdoors."

He also strongly encouraged Jane to hop on a few models before making a final decision. "The most important thing is to try the equipment before buying it," he so correctly pointed out. "Each model will feel different, and you can't accurately judge the feel of a particular piece just by looking at a picture in a catalog or on the Internet." Wow. We were certainly impressed considering the Mystery Shoppers we have done where we are never invited to try a piece nor are we told how they can differ in feel and often a choice can be personal taste.

After trying out a few pieces in the $1,500 to $3,000 range, Jane decided she liked both the Precor 9.23 treadmill (priced at $1,899) and the Precor EFX 5.25 elliptical (priced at $2,599). Without prompting, Jay fetched a sheet of information, dutifully writing in the price, and later provided Jane with additional brochures she requested too.

Because Jane didn't live in the immediate Boston area, and since (as of her visit) there were only three Precor Home Fitness stores in region, she asked about Precor's delivery and warranty policies. Apparently quite a fitness retail sales vet, Jay explained that Precor plans to open up to 30 stores this year, which will give the brand a stronger presence in many U.S. cities and will help improve customer service.

Jane then asked, "What are your thoughts on an extended warranty?" Wonderfully, the manager seemed truly sincere when he said, "I would recommend it more for treadmills than for ellipticals. There are more moving parts on a treadmill, and we typically see more treadmill repairs than elliptical repairs. That said, it really depends on how often and heavily used the piece of equipment is going to be."

With all of her key questions answered, Jane thanked Jay and shook hands. She had noted she wasn't quite ready to buy yet since she was moving soon. He had smartly provided his business card and stressed she should call at any time, even just to get additional information. Pleased with her experience, she walked out into the afternoon sun. Jane smiled as she contemplated how fit she would become once her gym membership lapsed.

SNEWS® View: This manager has it going on, as they say. He qualified the customer, created a respect with honest and frank answers, provided her with all the appropriate information to think about a decision, and didn't pressure her. He wasn't able to try to "close" the sale, as we suspect he would have done based on his thoroughness, since Jane was clear she was looking in advance of her pending move back to the area from New York. OK, so he was a tad over-exuberant about future store numbers, considering the economy, but maybe that's what he's been told. As they say, under-promise and over-deliver: Always best to temper such promises since a customer could feel misled if they aren't met. Either way, he did a pretty smashing job of allowing Jane to have a satisfying experience.

--SNEWS® Editors

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